Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Weighing In: The Rules of Attraction/American Psycho

Reviews of two films based on the novels by Bret Easton Ellis -- neither of which I've read...

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

In the late 1990's and early 2000's, there seemed to be a slew of movies depicting a provocative and explicit side amongst America's young adults. Cruel Intentions, Varsity Blues and American Pie (all from 1999), boldly went where few "coming-of-age" mainstream films went before: experimental bi-sexual romps in Central Park, whipped cream bikinis and X-rated flute "practice" (outside of band camp). These were certainly a far cry from the retrospectively tamer Animal House, American Graffiti or even Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- all of which were groundbreaking films at the time.

Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction goes a step farther. From start to finish (or should I say from finish to start?), the film portrays a New Hampshire college as the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Are the events that take place at this institution of "higher" learning every day occurrences? Probably not. Are they outside the realm of possibilities? These days, not at all. The Rules of Attraction is one of the better films within the "teen-angst" genre not because it's necessarily believable, but because you get what you pay for: a sobering dose of 100% pure teen angst -- no frills, no happy endings. It also doesn't hurt that the cinematography and slick camera play are brilliant. In fact, the most enjoyable part of the film -- and arguably one of the greatest four minutes in modern cinema -- is a recap of one character's (Victor) escapades while "studying" abroad in Europe. In flawless double-time dialog and through authentic looking home video footage, Victor recalls, amongst other things: "I saw the Arc de Triomphe and almost became roadkill crossing the street (all too true);" that Barcelona had "too many fat American students, too many lame meat markets;" and that Rome was "big and hot and dirty; it's just like L.A. but with ruins." He is spot on.

The film perversely tracks the lives of a handful of college students (do I dare use that word?) who only seem to study one subject: Sex. At the forefront is Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) -- a misogynistic, sociopathic hornball who has clear Freudian issues. Within a few minutes, we are introduced to the other main characters: Lauren (Shannyn Sossaman), an attractive but hypochondriacal proponent of abstinence who, ironically, finds herself in one sexual encounter after the next and her roommate, Lara (Jessica Biel), the obligatory airhead nymphomaniac who always has the right advice for her sexually-naive roomie ("If a condom is 98% safe, and he wears two, then you're 196% safe"). There is also the aforementioned Victor (Kip Pardue), who despite his more or less 5 minutes in the entire picture, we learn he briefly dated Lauren before leaving for Europe. Unfortunately for Lauren, his memory just isn't the same upon his return. Lastly, there is Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a gay, sexually frustrated student, fixated on becoming romantically involved with Sean; not surprisingly, the feelings aren't mutual. There is also a very comedic, albeit short scene featuring Fred Savage, who I think steals the show.

We get the usual Hollywood portrayal of "typical" college life: topless sunbathing (in NH?), male and female bi-sexual escapades, a lot of swigging straight from the whiskey bottle, mounds of cocaine and frat parties transplanted from the best of Girls Gone Wild (what are these kids so depressed about?!?). There is really no plot per se, but rather, a series of painful vignettes that examine what goes on inside the heads of a few rather emotionally unstable collegians. There are no winners or losers (but for one contrived suicide) and no one to root for or against. It's a numb kind of existence. In the end, it's quite literally live and learn for these students. After all, isn't that what college is all about?

Verdict: Middleweight

Spoiler alert: European flashback scene referenced above.

(make sure volume is on)

American Psycho (2000)

Just because a movie gets a lot of hype it doesn't mean it's a good film. Exhibit A: American Psycho. After 9 years of endless hype and (looking back) justifiable apprehension, I finally forced myself to sit down and invest 101 minutes of my weekend to watch the it too much to ask for my time back? Unfortunately, director Mary Harron, like her main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), preys on a superficial audience and offers no pay-off in the end. In reality, the film fails miserably as a "psychological thriller;" instead, I sense that it panders to those who think Wedding Crashers was "movie of the decade." Harron is not entirely to blame since apparently much of the script is based on the eponymous novel. Nevertheless, the film meanders without any continuity, and all too often, it borders on outright outlandish -- even for satire.

Bateman (the fictional older brother of Sean Bateman in The Rules of Attraction), is a delusional, corporate sycophant who has zero concept of culture, morality, and most pitifully, his inner self -- only a well-chiseled facade which perpetuates his repugnant narcissism. To make matters worse, he has a shallow appreciation for really bad 80's music (I think I actually know people like this); it suits him perfectly. Not surprisingly, all of his investment banker cronies, and I hesitate to call them "friends," are identical: they only care about themselves. However, Bateman differs from his coworkers in one regard: he possesses a vampiric blood lust -- he kills because he feels like it. Now, more likely than not, these murderous encounters are all in his head as the scenarios surrounding each event are just plain absurd. At least in The Shining, for example, we get some explanation behind Jack Torrance's descent into madness -- even if it was likewise a fantasy (compare with the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where no explanation for their repulsive behavior is needed; rather, we just accept that they are a bunch of backwoods crazies, far removed from any semblance of societal norms as opposed to say Bateman, who is a calculated, sophisticated and wealthy yuppie living in luxurious Manhattan). But, The Shining is a superior film -- if not a masterpiece. Here, we are not so lucky. Nonetheless, real or fake, Bateman is one sick puppy. There is a scene where Bateman and his colleagues engage in a sort of mutual masturbation over each other's business cards in the board room of Pierce & Pierce -- sadly, this is the high point of the film. No wonder there isn't one character in the entire ensemble we sympathize with -- not even Bateman's victims (except for maybe his secretary Jean [Chloe Sevigny]; but even her aloof, Iowa farm-girl routine doesn't seem plausible considering she works at a "dog-eat-dog," Wall Street investment firm).

Interestingly, it appears that someone in production, and I suppose Harron herself, had a serious fascination with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- the magnum opus of all modern horror/thrillers -- as it subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly appears throughout the film. Both Bateman and Leatherface wear masks -- Bateman's is made of exfoliating fruit extracts, Leatherface's, of human flesh. There is also a scene where Bateman is doing his "1000 crunches" while watching the iconic swinging chainsaw finale in the latter film -- a foreshadowing of things to come. And there are numerous references by Bateman to Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsin killer whom Leatherface is apparently very loosely based upon. Maybe this was all in the book, I really don't know...and at this point, never will.

Verdict: Lightweight

--DS, The Weight

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama Inauguration Concert Rehearsal

I decided this evening to try my luck at watching some rehearsals at the Lincoln Memorial for tomorrow's concert to kick off the Inauguration events for Barack Obama. Given that I only live a couple miles away, it would have been no real loss to me if I got there and nothing was going on. Initially, I thought about walking over, but the 25 degree temperatures outside had me thinking about how I could best approach by car. I put on my two sweatshirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, grabbed my camera, threw on my jacket, and headed out the door. As it turned out I was able to park very close to the Lincoln despite the numerous trucks, vans, and trailers stationed around there to setup and produce the show.

As I approached the grounds of The Mall, walking from my car, I took in the increasing volume of U2 rehearsing 'Pride (In The Name of Love)'. It was at this point that I knew it was worth the trip over. I continued my walk, until I wasn't able to get any closer due to the many railings sealing off what will be the VIP seating area. I was able to stand off to the left of those seats with a very clear view of the stage about 30 yards in front of me. The area I was in will no doubt be full as soon as they open the gates tomorrow at 8:30 AM for the 2:30 PM show. I was joined there by around 40 people, all who were braving the cold temperatures and appreciating how none of us will have this good of a view tomorrow. Having reached my viewing position, I was able to watch (and take a video of) U2's performance of 'City of Blinding Lights'.

After U2 left the stage, a voice over the loud speaker said, let's prepare for James Taylor 'Shower The People'. I admit that I am a big James Taylor fan, so I was excited to find out that not only was the rehearsal not done, but I would get to see someone I really like take the stage next. With my face getting colder and colder and my hands numb from calling to tell people I had just seen U2 perform, I got to watch JT and John Legend run through 'Shower The People' around four times altogether. I have no idea how James was able to play his turquoise Fender for such a long time in those temperatures.

It was during Taylor's performance that I got to chatting with the guy standing next to me. He told me about attending the same concert for Bill Clinton's inauguration back in January 1993, which featured Micheal Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin. He'd also seen 150 Grateful Dead shows over the years, worked as a concert promoter in his past, and lived in Manhattan for 25 years. We had plenty to talk about. After James Taylor wrapped up and I was about to get myself out of the freezing cold, the producer announced that they were going to prepare the stage for "Garth". I definitely wasn't going to walk away now. Garth Brooks ran through his rehearsal, backed by a full choir. His performance included verses of 'American Pie' and 'Shout'. He had the small group of people gathered by me singing along and throwing up their hands. It may have been a rehearsal, but Mr. Brooks performed it like Obama and the world was watching. He was great.

The rehearsal was completed as Garth finished on-stage, and at that point I had been out in the freezing temps for over two hours. I have to remember, when I go back to the same venue tomorrow to watch the actual concert take place, that two pairs of socks aren't enough.

On my way back to the car, I noticed some camera flashes going off by the railing leading to the backstage area. After walking over to see what was going on, I saw Garth Brooks shaking hands, taking pictures, and chatting with a small group of no more than 20 people. He gave each person who wanted to talk to him a few minutes of conversation. He snapped pictures, signed autographs, and seemed to really enjoy meeting the public. I waited my turn, shook his hand, told him my name when he asked for it, and got my picture taken with Mr. Garth Brooks. He couldn't have been nicer. It goes to show you that you really can earn fans one at a time. I, like the others I'm sure, walked back to my car smiling.

So now I have tomorrow's concert to look forward to. I'll get to see Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and many others. I'm certain that I won't have the same view that I had tonight. I'll likely be watching on TV monitors even though I'll be there in person. I'll also be the one who got to meet Garth Brooks and see U2 perform the night before for far less people.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Weighing In: Vacancy

Moral of the story: invest in a decent cell phone and GPS device before driving on unlit, deserted backroads. Vacancy (2007), is an average, but valiant attempt to combine the Hitchcockian themes of old with the "Slice 'em and Dice 'em" schlock of new. Directed by the relatively unknown Nimrod Antal, Vacancy is surprisingly watchable, especially in light of the seemingly infinite pile of drek pumped out by Hollywood recently. I suspect that Antal did his homework before working on the film.

The plot centers around David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) as the prototypical modern sparring couple. They are good-looking, snarky, egotistical, stubborn -- you know, all of the qualities that make for a healthy marriage these days. What's more, they are in the midst of a seemingly irreparable marital breakdown, precipitated largely by the untimely death of their son. Now, maybe I'm giving too much credit here, but I think Antal actually does a decent job of portraying the couple's decay via sleek camera tricks and well thought out framing of people and objects. Take for example the following: in the opening sequence, we rarely see the couple together in the same shot despite that they are seated less than six inches away from each other in the same car; or the use of the car's rear-view mirror for shots of David and side-view mirror for shots of Amy -- perhaps in an attempt to blur image from inner-self, or, to further demonstrate the disconnect amongst the couple.

After several minutes of low blows and gratuitous insults (during which David cruelly mocks Amy's dependence on a "cocktail" of anti-depressants), the couple finds themselves off-course and, big surprise, experiencing mechanical problems after hitting roadkill. They stumble upon a nearby gas station where they are greeted by a nameless, quirky attendant (Ethan Embry), whom we immediately suspect we'll see again. The Embry character claims to have fixed the problem (but we know better) and the couple is back on the road. Expectedly, the car breaks down again, fatefully stranding David and Amy in the middle of Nowheresville, USA. They are both lost and broken down -- you guessed it, literally and figuratively -- and this is when the real trouble begins. How convenient.

Sticking to the formula, Amy's cell phone predictably doesn't work, and even more curious, David doesn't even have a cell phone, so they are left with no choice but to wander back into town. They arrive at the campy and outdated Pinewood Motel where they meet resident night manager/local oddball, Mason (Frank Whaley) who is so obviously sociopathic, it's a wonder they didn't run when they had the chance. Rather, they are strong-armed into renting a room (the "honeymoon suite," naturally), and the couple opts to spend the night until they can call for a tow truck in the morning (I think critic Dan Schneider would call this the "Dumbest Possible Action").

Plot aside for a moment, I was a bit disappointed with the choice of casting for Mason's part; I just didn't find Whaley all that convincing. For one, his character is way overacted -- the darting eyes, the forced accent, the sinister sniveling -- it's a dead giveaway that he's a deranged maniac. Second, his uncanny resemblance to Kip from Napoleon Dynamite is too much of a distraction to take him seriously. On the other hand, what made Anthony Perkins so perfect as Norman Bates in Psycho was his subtle boyish charm and effortless believability. We want to like him, we even sort of relate to him (well, at least until he confesses that "a boy's best friend is his mother"). Recall the famous scene where we practically root for Marion Crane's (Janet Leigh) car to sink to the bottom of the swamp so that Bates doesn't get caught. That was the allure of Perkins. That was what made Hitchcock a master filmmaker: his ability to implicate and beguile us. Not so much with Whaley. Didn't Antal learn anything from Gus Van Sant's trainwreck casting of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates in the1998 remake? At least do what Tobe Hooper did in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Cast unknown amateurs -- it actually works!

In any event, after stumbling upon a number of disturbing videos tapes in their room, the couple realizes that they are the centerpiece of a murderous snuff film. From here on out, the film is an extended cat-and-mouse chase between the couple and a band of violent weirdos (including the aforementioned Ethan Embry character), which admittedly, I found engaging for most of the time. On a positive note, Antal does a nice job implicating the audience as voyeurs a la Hitchcock; he forces us to perversely observe the couple's frantic plight. After all, is there no greater invasion of privacy than peeping on an unsuspecting couple at of all places, a roach motel?

Moreover, Antal continues with the theme of discord: his use of window frames to separate the quarreling couple or the placement of an upright shotgun that physically divides the two when seated in a police vehicle are nice touches. But unfortunately, the film succumbs to too many of the now ubiquitous horror cliches: the bumbling sheriff -- one day away from retirement, one badge above mall security, the impeccably-timed power outages, or the phone lines that never seem to work. And like most things too good to be true, the film's ending is a predictable letdown, in contrast to say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whose finale is to this day, still amongst the best and most memorable in recent film history (at a minimum, within the horror genre). I guess hoping for an original ending is too much to ask for these days.

But maybe I'm being too harsh. At just over 80 minutes, the film is relatively engaging and not a complete waste of time. And besides the contrived ending, I actually liked where the film was heading despite my (justifiable) apprehension of a neat and tidy wrap-up. Even the usually blase Wilson isn't all that terrible.

I wrote earlier that Antal must have done his homework. What I meant was, despite Antal's overt "borrowing" from Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,* he does so tactfully, and when executed in that way, one always scores points. So, while imperfect, Antal puts forth a commendable effort at minimizing the gore in favor of a more intelligent portrayal of yes, contemporary issues -- much like Hitchcock did so skillfully decades earlier. The only thing he leaves out is a domineering mother...

* E.g. 1) the opening title sequence/closing credits of Vacancy practically mirrors the vertical and horizontal typeface and layout famously utilized in Psycho; 2) the inclusion of a desolate gas station and its creepy attendant foreshadow impending danger in both Vacancy and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; 3) in both Vacancy and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is really no explanation for the killers' motivations (compare with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween where revenge is the main factor).

--DS, Weightstaff

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wake Up The Dead

As rumored for quite a while now The Dead have confirmed that they are set to head back out on the golden road this spring with a mostly east coast arena tour, including a few two night runs in Worcester, East Rutherford, and Philly.

According to the band press release:

"Details for pre-sale and on-sale tickets will be announced in the near future. Go to Dead.Net for ticket and tour information. Original Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart will be joined by keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, both of whom played with the band at the “Change Rocks” concert."

Sun 4/12 Greensboro, NC Greensboro Coliseum
Tue 4/14 Washington, DC Verizon Center
Wed 4/15 Charlottesville, VA John Paul Jones Arena
Fri 4/17 Albany, NY Times Union Center
Sat 4/18 Worcester, MA DCU Center
Sun 4/19 Worcester, MA DCU Center
Tue 4/21 Buffalo, NY HSBC Arena
Wed 4/22 Wilkes-Barre, PA Wachovia Arena @ Casey Plaza
Fri 4/24 Uniondale, NY Nassau Coliseum
Sat 4/25 New York, NY Madison Square Garden
Sun 4/26 Hartford, CT XL Center
Tue 4/28 E. Rutherford, NJ IZOD Center
Wed 4/29 E. Rutherford, NJ IZOD Center
Fri 5/1 Philadelphia, PA Wachovia Spectrum
Sat 5/2 Philadelphia, PA Wachovia Spectrum
Tue 5/5 Chicago, IL All State Arena
Thu 5/7 Denver, CO Pepsi Center
Sat 5/9 Los Angeles, CA -e Forum
Sun 5/10 Mountain View, CA Shoreline Amphitheater